I’ve always meant to post more of my work-work to this blog. I’m mildly creeped out by the extent that secrecy, or at least discreteness, enters into the work of academics. The desire to be the first one on the scene with an idea or a process is strong, and the worry that someone else might take your seed and grow it quicker or better looms large in the academic imagination. People don’t want to share data they’ve put their sweat and grant money into collecting until they’ve cemented it as their own by publishing on it. Ideas are guarded like data, but more so, because there’s no proving it was your idea if it somehow leaks out and someone else published on it.
I get that. I understand it. I even agree with it, in a limited sort of a way, for an off night. But like the good transformationalist I am, I want to respond by behaving as if those concerns don’t exist, thus willing them into non-being. I think there is a strong case to be made that all ideas are produced from the mulch of others’, and that there are many cases where an idea will be carried through it’s full life cycle by the labour of multiple hosts. Someone will think of it (or ferment it from the compost of others’ thinking), someone will recognize it as worth writing up a grant proposal for, someone else (probably an underling) will end up implementing it, and in doing so will have to have many original thoughts of their own. If it’s a methodology or a proof-of-principle, or high-level theory, many others will think their way through to finding applications for it. Each of those steps is valuable, each hard, each creative, each worthy of renown and prestige. And that assumes that they do all get done. If we are too careful with our ideas, perhaps they will never reach full potential because we don’t have the time or the appreciation for them. And we don’t want that, do we?
So I want to at least passively spread my ideas, even if I haven’t published them in forums that legitimate them as exclusively mine, and even if I hope to someday do so. If they’re no good then they will take up a few more bits in the ever-growing pool of world bit storage. If they are useful, but I don’t see how or in what way, then maybe someone else can use them. If they are useful and good and I see that and I do something with them but someone else beats me to the punch, that swift actor has added value by getting them into the temporal flow faster, so their wake can spread wider sooner, and I’m pleased and I only hope they reference me. Perhaps it will all encourage input, or even collaboration. Speculation in the absence of facts is fun.
Of course it’s easy enough to say all of this when you (I) don’t actually generate many actionable ideas. Most of my work, when I do any, is explicitly on the the building-on-others end of the building-on-others to eureka-original-idea scale. So I am naturally predisposed to advocating for the freedom of ideas to be built on. Nonetheless, I am convinced enough that I would still feel this way even if I do reach the status of full-time primary researcher that I want to begin establishing my openness habits now. For that matter, given that I believe in the creative worthiness of all the other steps that come after eureka-idea, I think it’s okay to blog about those steps too. In any case, I want to chronicle my stuff throughout it’s life cycle, not just once it’s been published. I want to catch some of the crazy energy being generated by those wild ones over in high-energy physics.
I’ve tried to make starts on this in the past. Most of the time I never finished the posts. In one or two less ambitious cases I did, but without the conceptual or data resolution for them to be even potentially helpful (or harmful). Now that I’m beginning to see some interesting assignments come my way, even as a student I might have a few novel or application ideas, so I might as well start again with those. And then, sooner than I hope later, I will start my own research.
I hope this won’t seem presumptuous. I don’t think that this blog gets trafficked by lots of people who are looking to digest or use research ideas. I’ll leave all that thinking to google. I don’t even mean to assert that anyone who might come across this blog should care about what I’m working on, or that my stuff is cooler than yours. You could make this socially easier for me by starting your own blog and blogging about your own stuff. Perhaps you have. Good for you.
My experience with freeing up my photos has been nothing but positive, has led to them showing up in several odd and fun places where they otherwise would not have gone (including, last summer a magazine for adult ESL students) and I have even received some cool swag in return. I don’t know if that’s relevant. But it’s true, which is almost as good.
“Time is an enormous long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
— Utah Phillips, from The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere
That’s a much larger thought than blogs and research of course, but I think it applies. I think we all take from the river, and I think we give into it too, either grudgingly or for fun.